R.E.M. Lifes Rich Pageant

R.E.M. Albums: Ranked from Worst to Best

R.E.M. emerged from Athens, Georgia, part of a fertile scene that also produced The B-52s, Pylon, and Matthew Sweet. They played their first gig in 1980 when the four members were attending the University of Georgia. Drummer Bill Berry and bassist Mike Mills had been playing in bands together since high school. Vocalist Michael Stipe shopped at the record store where guitarist Peter Buck worked and would buy the records that Buck had been saving for himself.

R.E.M. began their career as a folk–flavoured post-punk band, with cryptic albums that enjoyed a cult following. Early albums like 1983’s Murmur and 1984’s Reckoning were staples of the college-rock scene. Over the course of the 1980s, R.E.M. beefed up their sound, started to enjoy radio airplay, and signed to a major label. By the early 1990s R.E.M. were one of the biggest bands in the world – the acoustic pop of Out Of Time, the sombre Automatic for the People, and the glam of Monster were all huge-sellers as alternative rock became the mainstream.

R.E.M. endured a medically eventful 1995 tour in support of Monster, and drummer Bill Berry departed the band after 1996’s New Adventures in Hi-Fi. R.E.M. soldiered on until 2011’s Collapse Into Now, but were arguably never the same after Berry left – Buck, Mills, and Berry were all contributed to writing the band’s music, and Berry was a key contributor to songs like ‘Can’t Get There From Here’ and ‘Everybody Hurts’. The band’s legacy has perhaps been clouded by their 21st-century work, but their back-catalogue is still very strong – Steve Wynn of Dream Syndicate later said, “R.E.M. was first to show us you can be big and still be cool.”

In hindsight, the band’s fifteen albums divide neatly into three groups – five albums for indie label IRS in the 1980s, their first five albums for Warner Brothers from 1988-1996 that mark their commercial high point, and the five post-Bill Berry albums as the band soldiered on without their founding drummer. Here are their R.E.M.’s studio albums ranked from worst to best.

R.E.M.’s Albums Ranked

#15 – Around the Sun

2005
Around the Sun isn’t a controversial pick as R.E.M.’s worst album – like Reveal it sounds overly fussy and sterile. Buck later admitted that “it sounds like what it is, a bunch of people that are so bored with the material that they can’t stand it anymore.” Even at their worst, R.E.M. are still writing worthwhile material like ‘Leaving New York’, but overall Around The Sun is a tough slog.


#14 – Reveal

2001
R.E.M. are overwhelmed by 21st-century recording technology on Reveal, making a record that sounds over-laboured and sterile. Buck described the album as combining Jimmy Webb, Glen Campbell, and The Beach Boys, but it’s overlong and bogged down in ProTools. It does have its moments – ‘All the Way to Reno (You’re Gonna Be a Star)’ captures the ‘Wichita Lineman’ vibe the band were aiming for, and ‘I’ll Take The Rain’ is a gorgeous ballad.


#13 – Monster

R.E.M. Monster

1994
R.E.M. surprised fans in 1994 with an album of glammed-up grunge songs. It was the antithesis of Automatic for the People and became a used bin staple. The singles are great, especially ‘What’s The Frequency Kenneth?’ and ‘Bang and Blame’. On the other hand it lacks stylistic variation and ‘Strange Currencies’ is a blatant rewrite of ‘Everybody Hurts’.


#12 – Out of Time

R.E.M. Out of Time

1991
R.E.M. had dabbled with acoustic tracks on Green, writing songs on mandolin and organ. On Out of Time they commit to the approach, and the album made them into mega-stars. R.E.M. disenfranchised some long-term fans with the bright and bouncy single ‘Shiny Happy People’, with The B-52s’ Kate Pierson on backing vocals. I enjoy it, but it’s symptomatic of the album’s overall lack of depth and edge. Lead single ‘Losing My Religion’, with Buck on mandolin, is one of the band’s best songs.


#11 – Collapse Into Now

2011
When they recorded Collapse Into Now, R.E.M. had already decided that it would be their final album. Stipe sounds like a load has been lifted from his shoulders on fun numbers like ‘Mine Smell Like Honey’. It’s a little light on great songs, but the stylistic range from rockers to acoustic tracks that recall Out of Time makes it an effective career summary.


#10 – Green

R.E.M. Green

1988
Inevitably as their sales and popularity grew, R.E.M. signed with a major label, but their first album for Warner Brothers is a mixed bag. They’re aiming for pop hits more overtly than before, with songs like ‘Stand’ and ‘Pop Song 89’, and the results are mixed. They dabble with acoustic textures, foreshadowing their early 1990s phase, but they’re not as strong as what was to come. Green is unfocused, but it features some of the band’s very best work – ‘Orange Crush’ is a well-loved hit, while ‘World Leader Pretend’ and ‘I Remember California’ are strong deep cuts.


#9 – Document

R.E.M. Document

1987
R.E.M.’s final album for IRS provided their commercial breakthrough – ‘The One I Love’ reached the US top 10, a rare feat for an indie band. Producer Scott Litt would continue with the band over their most commercially successful period, and he provides a more muscular sound. Document is the most uneven of R.E.M.’s independent albums, however – there’s filler like the cover of Wire’s ‘Strange’, and it ends limply with tracks like ‘King of Birds’. There are still signature singles like ‘It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)’ and deep cuts like ‘Disturbance at the Heron House’.


#8 – Up

R.E.M. Up

1998
R.E.M.’s first album without Bill Berry is different from anything they’d produced previously. Mills is often on keyboards and Buck on bass, and songs like the electronica of ‘Airportman’ and the lush piano balladry of ‘At My Most Beautiful’ stake out new territory for R.E.M. . The lead single ‘Daysleeper’ is more familiar sounding, based around Buck’s guitar, and Up is often excellent albeit overlong.


#7 – Accelerate

2008
After a pair of lacklustre albums, R.E.M. rebounded with the back-to-basics approach of Accelerate. With Bill Rieflin filling in on drums they feel like a band again, playing rock songs that utilise Buck’s guitar and Mills’ chunky and melodic basslines. The tight 34-minute running time is appreciated after some overlong records, with convincing rockers like ‘Living Well Is The Best Revenge’ and ‘Supernatural Superserious’.


#6 – Fables of the Reconstruction

R.E.M. Fables of the Reconstruction

1985
R.E.M.’s third album reflects the band’s roots, a concept album about residents of the American South like ‘Old Man Kensey’ and ‘Wendell Gee’. The record’s produced by Joe Boyd, famous for his work in the 1960s with folk-rock acts like Nick Drake and Fairport Convention. But rather than accentuate R.E.M.’s folk-rock tendencies, Fables of the Reconstruction widens their stylistic range. Opener ‘Feeling Gravity’s Pull’ is atmospheric while songs like ‘Driver 8’ and ‘Can’t Get There From Here’ are punchy and accessible.


#5 – New Adventures in Hi-Fi

R.E.M. New Adventures in Hi Fi

1996
New Adventures In Hi-Fi was largely recorded during soundchecks on a horrific tour, during which drummer Bill Berry nearly died from a brain aneurysm and Michael Stipe and Mike Mills were both hospitalised. At 65 minutes there’s filler, but this is exactly the kind of album that dedicated fans will enjoy wading through, and in spite of, or perhaps because of, its sprawling nature New Adventures In Hi-Fi is among the group’s best records. Patti Smith guests on ‘E-Bow the Letter’ while the car alarm effect that anchors the lengthy ‘Leave’ is excellent.


#4 – Reckoning

R.E.M. Reckoning

1984
The dourness of Murmur was lightened for R.E.M.’s second album, with a more conventional college rock sound. Reckoning is punchier than previously, but Stipe’s vocals are still low in the mix; he’s credited as the “lead vocal instrument”. Opening track ‘Harborcoat’ demonstrates the potential of this micro-era of R.E.M., marrying an arrangement that’s more propulsive than anything on Murmur, opening with a Bill Berry fill, to a pretty folk-rock melody that would have been right at home on that album.


#3 – Automatic for the People

1992
“Today I need something more substant, more substantial” sings Michael Stipe on Automatic for the People‘s ‘The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite’. And R.E.M. deliver with Automatic for the People, a vast improvement from the fun but shallow Out of Time. While the two albums share an acoustic sensibility, Automatic for the People has a sincere and poignant core, and it’s a much more affecting album. An unlikely collaborator is Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones, who contributes some gorgeous string parts, particularly to the slow-burning opener ‘Drive’.


#2 – Murmur

R.E.M. Murmur

1983
The title Murmur refers to Michael Stipe’s virtual incomprehensibility on R.E.M.’s debut album. Murmur is an excellent start for the band’s career; the group already had their entire sound worked out, and they’d only become more mainstream and less interesting. The key R.E.M. elements are recognisable on Murmur; Michael Stipe’s arty and cryptic lyrics, Peter Buck’s jangly guitars and Mike Mill’s harmonies are all present. ‘Radio Free Europe’ was the band’s first minor hit, but there are a ton of great tracks like the piano-laced ‘Shaking Through’, the cryptic indie of ‘Pilgrimage’, and the closing anthem ‘West of the Fields’.

I didn’t include the 1982 EP Chronic Town on this album countdown, but if you enjoy Murmur it’s well worth hearing.


#1 – Lifes Rich Pageant

R.E.M. Lifes Rich Pageant

1986
R.E.M. took a step toward the mainstream with Lifes Rich Pageant, enlisting John Mellencamp’s producer, who gave them a more commercial and rock-oriented sound, with Stipe’s vocals higher in the mix. Although R.E.M. lose some mystique in the process, the more direct sound is helpful, resulting in my favourite R.E.M. album. It’s packed with overlooked classics – the opening ‘Begin the Begin’, the lovely guitar solo on ‘Flowers of Guatemala’, and the hard-hitting chorus of ‘Cuyahoga’.

Did I leave out your personal favourite R.E.M. album? Am I crazy to neglect Document? Is Out of Time brilliantly tuneful, or a collection of fluffy, throwaway pop songs? What’s your R.E.M. top 5?

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Aphoristical
Graham Fyfe is probably the only music blogger to appreciate Neil Diamond and Ariana Grande.
Articles: 695

64 Comments

  1. As much as I like R.E.M – and I like them quite a bit – I’d have to think hard about my Top Five. I’ll go with yours, get back to you later. Just to acknowledge, good band, good post. I’m working on something about another band right now so they’re swirling around my head. I look forward to getting no REM sleep sometime in the near future.

  2. I joined the REM party pretty late, a fact that is reflected in my top 5.
    5) Document
    4) New Adventures in Hi-Fi
    3) Reveal (probably the only person in the world to put this one on the list)
    2) Lifes Rich Pageant
    1) Automatic for the People

    • My first REM album was Automatic for the People in 1998 – I loved it straight away. Then I picked up all the other stuff over a few years – except I’ve never heard Around The Sun or Accelerate.

      • Around the Sun is generally considered their worst. Rumor is that is was supposed to be their final, but was so poorly received, they couldn’t bear to go out like that. Accelerate was a good apology for Around the Sun, and Collapse Into Now (their last album) was a fitting farewell.

        • Yeah, I’ve heard Around the Sun was bad, which is why I’ve never listened to it. Never heard Accelerate, but I have heard Collapse Into Now. I liked it, but it seemed pretty retrogressive, like revisiting their 1990s’ work.

  3. I couldn’t name five from them as favourites out of all their stuff, so good on ya for having these mad skills! But Automatic For The People is my tops. Oh man. What a record.

    • Yeah, I love that one too – just love a couple of others even more, I kind of like the mysterious aura they had on those early records. I like to rank and rate everything – I know it doesn’t always work for music which is emotional and evokes different opinions – but it’s just the way my brain works.

  4. Like many – and many here! – Automatic was the album that really grabbed me. Having the 1991 IRS comp on the shelves, I never really went backwards. Though I still love that comp. The REM song I love most (from those I know) is “Fall on me”; perfect power pop.

    Excellent survey. These articles take time and thought. Nicely done.

  5. Automatic was the album that really grabbed and held my attention, but I’m gonna climb up on that table there and declare Monster to be my favourite R.E.M. album. I love that one unreservedly. Start to finish. Every song.

    The rest of my top 5 would include (in no particular order): Automatic, New Adventures (the highlights are high), Green, Document, Murmur. I think.

    And yeah, Out Of Time is fluff.

    • Sometimes ‘What’s The Frequency Kenneth’ is my favourite REM song, but I find the full album a bit of a slog.

      I guess if I get enough votes, I should collate them into a combined top 5 – although it looks like Automatic will clearly win.

      • I know a few others who find it a chore. I dunno exactly what it is, but it’s always been the one I’ve gone back to when I need an R.E.M. fix.

  6. Hmmm. I’ll give you a top three and would have to think some more:
    1. Automatic for the people
    2. Life’s rich pageant
    3. Document

    I’ve been working on my own R.E.M. but I’ve been procrastinating because it involves choosing my fave 5 songs. It’s difficult.

  7. I am glad to see a post about my favorite band! =D

    I am one of those people who defend Monster. I like it quite a bit. The only weak cuts I identify in there are “King of Comedy” and “You”. I love the rest of the bunch. Up is great, but it could have left a few tracks on the cutting floor; had it been a ten-track record, it would be a five-star work. I feel the same applies to Reveal, which would have been stellar all the way through without the terrible “Beachball” and “The Chorus and the Ring”. The only piece of their catalog I cannot defend is “Around the Sun”.

    Anyway, as for my 5 favorite albums, I would go with:

    1- Automatic for the People
    2- Murmur
    3- New Adventures in Hi-Fi
    4- Reckoning
    5- Fables of the Reconstruction

    So all in all, it is not that different from yours.

    • Yeah, I think Up could have done with a trim. It’s interesting, as REM kept their albums LP length in the early 1990s, but they got longer later in the decade – it worked for New Adventures, but others from the era could have benefited from being 40 minutes.

  8. Hm, I go back a ways (all the way back to hearing and enjoying the singles from Automatic in ’92 (seriously, it’s “call me when you try to wake her”?) and really got into them for a while after I heard E-Bow The Letter on the radio, up until I heard ‘Leaving New York’ on the radio as the lead off for Around The Sun and walked away – in all fairness ‘All The Way to Reno’ and Reveal was a puddle of clumsy, overproduced stodge too before they reached that nadir.

    Still Accelerate and Collapse Into Now (very enjoyable) got me back into them in time to be bummed enough when they called it a day.

    So after some thought I think I’d throw down a Top Five that goes a little like this:

    Fables of the Reconstruction
    Document
    Automatic For The People
    New Adventures in Hi-Fi
    Lifes Rich Pageant

    • That’s a cool top 5. I was reading an interview with Buck where he said they made a couple of albums where they were totally reliant on pro-tools, and that he dislikes them in hindsight.

  9. 1) Automatic for the People
    2) Lifes Rich Pageant
    3) Up
    4) New Adventures In Hi-Fi
    5) Reckoning

  10. Good List! Can’t argue with the top 3, different order though. My top 5 would be:

    1-Automatic
    2-Murmur
    3-Life’s Rich Pageant
    4-Fables
    5-New Adventures

    Gotta say though, although I like Up and Accelerate, and I think Document, Green and Out of Time are flawed, no way would I put the former 2 above the latter 3.

    • I only updated this post with full rankings last night – you found it quickly!

      I agree that putting Document and Green below Up and Accelerate is the most contentious part of my rating, but there’s an era of late 1980s and early 1990s REM that I find pretty patchy.

  11. Interesting list. Cool to find another real REM fan who knows their work beyond the 3 songs oldies stations play. So I have no complaints of your ratings but they’re quite different than mine. Mine would be 1) Automatic… 2)Fables… (A very close 2nd) 3) Life’s Rich Pageant 4) Reveal ( to me their last great record) 5)New Adventures… down to the bottom pair, Around the Sun and , hate to say it but to me unlistenable Collapse Into Now. The only cd of theirs I listened to start to finish only once & which contained songs I actively disliked (like the ‘DJ’ one). Still, to me a better collection than any other act of 80s or 90s

    • Thanks for writing in! I do wonder if you’re mixing up Accelerate and Collapse Into Now? Accelerate is the one with I’m Gonna DJ.

      I’m trying to think who might have a better catalogue over the 1980s and 1990s. U2 were pretty successful in that era but I don’t think their catalogue is quite as as consistent. Even though they started a little earlier, XTC were pretty strong through that 1980s and 1990s era (but only made two studio albums in the 1990s). Prince is probably a contender too.

      • Well, doesn’ t happen much but I was wrong about an REM thing…i had ‘I’m gonna dj’ on wrong album. But my sentiment stays…Collapse was largely crap and the few listenable songs sounded like retreads. Accelerate had some good tunes (‘Houston’ and title track really grabbed me). Glad to see several of your readers picked ‘Fables’ high on list…to me their most underrated effort, followed by Reveal (For what its worth, it did a lot better in Canada…maybe something in us that liked that breezy summer sound) while Murmur – good album, a couple of great songs & terrific entry to scene but not a truly astonishingly great one- is probably most over-rated.
        Still hoping for a reunion if only a few concerts!

        • I think they’ll probably play live again sometime, hopefully with Berry too. Kind of hope they don’t record anything else though – their catalogue is fine the way it is.

  12. As always really good list Graham. The album that has been interesting to me in the last few weeks is Accelerate. I drifted away from REM a little after Monster…at least the newer music. Supernatural, Superserious caught my attention, and then Hollow Man…so that album has climbed up my list.

    I bought Monster and loved it…I haven’t listened to it in a while so I will give it another spin soon. Of course, I love THE song on it but also Star 69, Bang and Blame, and Crush with Eyeliner. I simply love Peter Buck’s open-chord distorted guitar…

    Most of the people I meet and we talk REM…Green and Document are the two that come up the most. Document does have one of my top 3 REM songs… It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine) but I agree with their places… As far as Green….”Stand” to me should not have been released as a single. It would have been fine as an album cut.

    Lifes Rich Pageant and Murmur are perfect at 1 and 2

    • Hollow Man is pretty much power pop, I reckon, as is some of the IRS stuff like their cover of Superman.

      I probably need to give Monster another spin – I’ve never owned a copy and haven’t heard it for years. I have noticed that the critical consensus has really come around on it – it was widely regarded as their worst album when it was released, but it seems to have some critical cachet now.

      • I know some older REM fans who don’t like Monster one bit. I’m not sure if it was because of the heaviness or what.

        Peter Bucks jangling guitar is what caught my attention at first with REM. It was a Byrds sounding guitar in the 80s which was great.

        • It just seemed a bit overlong to me – if I want to listen to REM playing heavy glam rock, there’s parts of New Adventures like that.

          I was reading where Buck said he was more influenced by bands that were influenced by the Byrds, like The Soft Boys (with Robyn Hitchcock and the dude that did Walking on Sunshine).

          • I just read about him last week… Kimberley Rew.
            I can see that because when I heard that sound in the 80s…it was jangly but not as pronounced as McGuinn.

          • Mike Mills said he wanted to play like McCartney and Chris Squire. Bob Stinson was a big Yes fan too – so much for punk and new wave displacing prog.

          • Yes I guess it crept in.

            I think with Punk…it is an easy music to start with but once you progress…you aren’t punk anymore…although you can keep the attitude.
            A few bands kept that style I guess…The Ramones did but they were bubblegum-punk….to me anyway. The Clash…had the attitude but were good.

  13. After all these years, classic rock has become something similar to classic jazz a few decades ago. REM is not The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin or Jimi Hendrix (first tier Artists) but they are a solid second tier contenders. In my opinion, their best contributions as an artistic statement for the eternity are the albums issued at the beginning of their career. I am talking about what made them very good, fun, innovative and special. Not just good and commercially successful. 1) Murmur 2) Reckoning 3) Life …

    • Most of my favourites are from the IRS years – four of the top 6 came from that era. I don’t really think of REM as classic rock, although you could probably make a playlist of songs that could support that angle. Some of their appeal is that early mystique with the indecipherable lyrics.

  14. My cousin is a huge REM fan, would be interested to call him and get his take. They were too high brow for me, though.

  15. Max at badfinger20 had a post on REM that got me going back to re-listen to their earlier stuff. I didn’t get into them until Document (their earlier albums weren’t in my music consciousness during my college years), And kind of lost track of them after Monster. Although did think their last album was great. So give me a couple weeks and I’ll be able to weigh in more properly.

    • I think the first four are the strongest period – they kind of had this interesting southern mystique going on that I haven’t really heard from any other guitar band.

  16. Loved reading this one as much as any of your others, though I might disagree the most with your take here. I loved Out of Time and think it’s aged as well as anything they’ve done. Shiny happy…gets a bad rap because of the goofy lyrics. Its a killer Buck guitar line! Furthermore the 2nd half of the record may be my favorite stretch of any REM disc. Belong, half a world away, Texarkana, country feedback and me in honey would all make my list of favorite 25-30 REM songs. Would also have green higher. I liked none of the post Berry records very much. Accelerate easily would be my favorite of the bunch. I agree with you about Monster. I like 3 or 4 tracks on it but thats about the extent. Also agree the Lifes rich pageant is my #1. Begin the begin is such a perfect opener, these days bumps it up even more and then fall on me!! Also love the gorgeous flowers of Guatemala and I believe is an all time favorite of mine. Everything from chronic Town through automatic for the people is 5 stars to me, except maybe parts of the 2nd half of Document.

    • It’s OK to disagree! I don’t know why I have a thing against 1987-1991 REM, but it’s pretty deep-seated – I’ve owned physical copies of Out of Time and Document for more than 2 decades. I like Country Feedback but it feels a bit like a rough draft for EBow the Letter, and I heard EBow first because of my age – I remember the Automatic tracks coming out but not the Out of Time ones.

      Begin the Begin and Flowers of Guatemala are great.

      • Its especially ok to disagree about REM! They cover a lot of ground and murmur is nothing like new adventures which is nothing like green and I wouldn’t complain if you had any of them in your top 2. They’re fantastic and sometimes difficult but in my mind always interesting
        15. Around the sun
        14. Up
        13. Collapse into now
        12. Reveal
        11. Accelerate
        10. Monster
        9. Document
        8. New adventures….
        7. Green
        6. Fables
        5. Automatic for the people
        4. Murmur
        3. Out of time
        2. Reckoning
        1. Lifes rich pageant

  17. I stopped buying REM albums in the mid ’90s, but it seems I should give their later stuff another chance.

    • They did lose something after Berry left, but there’s still some worthwhile stuff. Hit the early records first if you don’t have those, though.

  18. Can’t believe I missed this REM feature Graeme. Sorry dude. Anyway…Murmur is vintage REM. I can see why a lot of fans love it. There is arguably not one bad song on that album. But for some reason I’m an ‘Automatic For The People’ kind of guy. Probably a lot more pop friendly than their early stuff but that’s ok. Is there any better opening track on a REM album than ‘Drive’? Immediately set the expectations of the album to high. The rest of course doesn’t disappoint.

    • I didn’t really publish this properly – it was an old post that I updated. Automatic for the People is excellent – my favourite from their post-IRS years. Just a couple of early albums I like more.

  19. For me it’s Reveal. It’s so over produced with unnecessary extra (electronic) layers. My favorite songs on it are the most REM-ish: She Juste Want To Be, Disappear, I’ll take the rain (although a tad too long). I actually do enjoy ATS, but again, less would have been more: it’s also over produced but there are good songs underneath. AFTP is a masterpiece in my mind. I really like their WB output as a four piece – and UP is a brilliant, moody, a bit of a wacko album. The first half of CIN is like a best of of what REM can do – I can listen to it in a loop.

    • Thanks for writing in! That Reveal/Around the Sun era is their worst for sure – they got too caught up in studio technology that hasn’t dated well.

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